Hemlock Grove (2013)

Hemlock Grove

Hemlock Grove

Rating: ★½☆☆☆ 

Three episodes in, so I tried. I really did.

Over those three episodes, the Netflix original series Hemlock Grove got off to an extremely languid start and just never went anywhere. At all. It half-heartedly dropped plot points that the series utterly failed to develop or inspire the viewer to care about, while simultaneously marching out a bunch of characters that were uninteresting, unlikable, seemingly unimportant, and poorly acted. Relationships were implied but never properly developed, nor do they seem to really be leading to anything.

The production of Hemlock Grove seems shoddy in some vague way, and for the most part, one wonders while watching whether the people involved actually forgot that they were supposed to be telling a story instead of just showing us a bunch of disconnected stuff. Oh, and most of the dialogue was apparently written by somebody who never heard actual people talk before in his or her entire life. So there’s that.

The only participant who makes it out of this with anything to show for it is Landon Liboiron as the gypsy werewolf, who succeeds at being totally charismatic despite some terribly awkward words getting shoved into his mouth and having nothing of any particular value to do.

With regard to gypsy werewolf, I have to mention one thing, because in some weird way, it epitomizes what’s so dumb about Hemlock Grove. The show repeatedly refers to Liboiron’s character as being significantly hirsuit. You know…because he’s a werewolf. And yet…he’s not. And I know this because he’s frequently half or fully naked in the series. Now, a better show might have just dropped those lines owing to the fact that they didn’t decide to cast an actual hairy guy in the part–or at the very least, they might have put some fake hair on him. But they didn’t. And so, it’s just another dumb plot point in an overall dumb show.

That’s Hemlock Grove.

The One Where Frank Underwood Throws [spoiler] in Front of the [spoiler]

Frank Underwood

Frank UnderwoodIf you read beyond this point without having watched House of Cards season one, or the first couple of episodes of season two, then you accept the consequences of your actions–because I’m going to spoil the hell out of them.

It has been a couple of weeks since I watched the episode referenced in the article title, and I am still attempting to decide whether or not this is House of Cards’s moment of shark-jumping. It wasn’t the reason that I took a break from the series, but it may be the reason that I haven’t felt strongly drawn back to it yet, despite the fact that I had found the building tension at the end of the first season to be fairly riveting. Continue reading “The One Where Frank Underwood Throws [spoiler] in Front of the [spoiler]”

Elysium (2013)

Elysium Movie Poster

Elysium Movie Poster

Rating: ★½☆☆☆ 

There is good science fiction, and there is bad science fiction. Elysium is the bad kind. Don’t bother.

Elysium is the sort of film that just doesn’t quite sit right with you while you’re watching it–for all the obvious reasons when in the moment–and then later on, as you’ve taken the time to properly digest it, you come to realize that there isn’t really a shred of story that holds together on any level. It’s not necessarily offensive viewing, but the entire concept is broken on so many layers that it’s impossible to be kind about it in any kind of objective analysis.

Brief example: a huge plot point hinges upon the fact that Jodie Foster’s repulsive and laughably over-the-top character can (essentially, single-handedly) stage a coup on the presidency of Elysium (which is the luxurious space station/colony to which all of the rich people flee when Earth becomes a total craphole) by simply rebooting the central computer and basically updating a database that will specify her as grand leader.

…and then there’s everything else. Sorry, Neill Blomkamp (director of Elysium)–I’m not sure where everything went wrong, but it clearly did. I’ve heard good things about District 9, but now I don’t know…

Dredd (2012)

Dredd (2012)

Dredd (2012)

Rating: ★★★½☆ 

About three minutes into 2012’s Dredd, starring Karl Urban, my wife said to me, “This is like a video game.” This turned out to be a fairly apt assessment, though I think my wife only half realized how correct she was, owing to the fact that she isn’t particularly a fan of video games and she fell asleep roughly 30 minutes into this movie. So yeah…Dredd is that kind of film.

This is essentially a beat-em-up game in cinematic clothing. There are no real surprises, so you can go fix yourself a sandwich in the middle of the film, come back 10 minutes later, and the same sorts of things will be happening. The plot doesn’t evolve. Judge Dredd’s goal to ascend to the top of the megablock tower is a constant. We know who the villain is from the start, we know why, and we know Judge Dredd will eventually kill her, not before killing an army of her goons. Dredd doesn’t follow any sort of conventional three act narrative structure. It’s extremely linear. You get the idea.

Dredd just is what it is. Unabashedly. And with that said…I found it to be pretty damn fun. Dredd features a huge body count and a ton of particularly graphic violence. It also features Karl Urban providing what I honestly believe is an amazing performance as the totally humorless and largely faceless protagonist.

Jaw Acting - Karl Urban as DreddOne reviewer on the Internet Movie Database referred to Urban’s performance as “jaw acting”. That made me laugh out loud, but it’s a great term for what he does here. It really is all in the mouth, and don’t fool yourself–not just any actor could pull this off.

I do think, however, that the reason Urban was able to get away with such a single-minded performance is owed to a pretty good pairing with Olivia Thirlby as the rookie cop that Judge Dredd is tasked with evaluating. This was certainly not a wasted character nor a wasted actress. Dredd portrays Judge Anderson as a woman who wants to succeed in the career for which the brutal world has selected her, and she only confronts in the most minor sense the moral ambiguity intrinsic to her role as judge, jury, and executioner. The extent to which she does, however, is invaluable to the film, I think.

Most importantly, there isn’t even a shred of sexual tension or romantic sentiment between these two judges. Thank god, as that would have been ludicrous.

To be clear, though I am a fan of comic books, I’ve never read any of the 2000AD comics featuring Judge Dredd. Whether this is faithful or not to the source material is a question that I can’t answer. I have a feeling that it is, though I also feel that it’s faithfulness is probably largely immaterial to whether or not a person will enjoy Dredd. 

Dredd feels like a small film with uncomplicated goals, but it very adequately accomplishes those goals while having absolutely no delusions about the sort of film that it is. I can appreciate this sort of straightforward filmmaking, and it’s not surprising that Dredd seems to have acquired some sort of cult audience despite having been a total flop at the box office.

Now that you’ve read that, go watch this video review of both Dredd and Judge Dredd (1995) by my friend Donald of Blessed Are the Geeks.

 

The Hunt (2012)

the-hunt

Rating: ☆☆☆☆☆ 

(unrated)

Clarification: the rating above indicates only that I did something while watching The Hunt that I almost never do while watching even the most tedious films: I paused it, ranted about it to my wife, listened to her rant to me about the same exact thing, and then we jointly agreed to turn it off and watch something else. So I’m not qualified to provide a rating for The Hunt, since I only experienced the first half hour.

I can, however, give a recommendation I think. But I’m going to make you read my subjective synopsis before I supply a recommendation. The Hunt was nominated for the Best Foreign Film Academy Award and currently claims an 8.3 on the Internet Movie Database, so I think I owe an explanation for why my wife and I so fervently resisted continuing past the first act. 

Here is how The Hunt plays out: Mads Mikkelsen’s character, Lucas, is a sad divorcee. He is, apparently, beloved by all, brave, great with children, empathetic, and nobly suffers a mysteriously vindictive wife who is horrible to him and keeps his son away from him for 12 out of every 14 days merely because she can (he had lost his job because of a school closing while they were getting divorced).

And then his life begins to turn around. He gains a position at the local kindergarten, his son convinces the ex-wife that he would prefer to live with his dad full-time, and the attractive foreign teacher’s aid at the kindergarten begins to come on to him pretty hot and heavy, promising to alleviate his loneliness. Hell–even his best friend with the rocky marriage seems to be getting along better with his own wife, probably as a result of being such good buddies with this paragon of virtue.

Oh, and did I mention that his best friend has a weird, depressed kindergarten-aged daughter named Klara with an unsettling facial tick, who has, apparently, developed a crush on Lucas as a result of him being just about the only person in the world who is ever nice to her? So one day at school, she wraps up a plastic heart and slips it into Lucas’s pocket while planting a kiss on his lips when he’s playing with the kids. Lucas has a private talk with her, tells nobody else (unwisely), and then of course proceeds to have his life ruined.

The scorned child naively mentions to the woman running the kindergarten that she hates Lucas because he’s ugly and stupid and has a penis “that points up, like a rod” (terminology she learned from her weird brother, who apparently thinks nothing of shoving pornographic images in her face for no reason at all), and this is the point that I kind of face-palmed.

We’ve all seen this movie before, right? Or this episode of Law & Order: SVU, or whatever. We know how this goes. It doesn’t end well for anybody. But we also know at this point that kids just flat-out make stuff up sometimes, and that when investigating these sorts of claims, you’ve got to be extremely careful to not paint a picture for them that they can easily map onto their memories. Because, yeah…as I said, we’ve all seen that movie. Well, all except for the people in this movie who work with children and have, one would think, taken at least one course in child development and psychology in their lives. Right?

I don’t know…maybe in Denmark, any fucking idiot can run a kindergarten. But in The Hunt, Lucas’s boss handles the issue as follows:

She calls Lucas into her office and tells her that a student claims Lucas showed her his penis. She provides him about two seconds to digest this, and while he is still reeling from this out-of-left-field accusation, she says, “Anyway, I’m too busy to talk about this now.” And she ushers the dumbfounded Lucas out the door (I guess she started to feel a little icky about it). Even though she has her suspicions about Klara’s story, she never talks with Lucas about how he might protect himself throughout the investigatory process moving forward. Because, you know…kids make stuff up, and the vague story that the girl, Klara, told doesn’t even make a lot of sense. In the United States, two thousand lawyers would have been consulted before this conversation even happened.

She shortly thereafter brings in some dude who has clearly never talked to a child before in his entire life. It’s unclear who this guy even is, but I presume he’s meant to be an administrator or maybe the school counselor or something. Apart from the fact that he’s a man conducting this very uncomfortable conversation with Klara (it should be a female), this is how The Hunt depicts this initial interview with a girl who everybody, apparently, knows has a “vivid imagination” (read: inclined to make stuff up):

“So let me tell you what I think happened. You were at school and Lucas showed you his penis, then made you touch it, and you saw white stuff come out. Is that it? No–no need to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ or offer any sort of details of your own. This is what happened. Don’t mind Grethe over there puking in the trash can. This is totally out of your control now.” [Paraphrased]

This scene rang so false to me that I had to pause it and get up from the couch. This was the point at which my wife and I bilaterally agreed that this film wasn’t going to be worth watching to the end. While it’s not absolutely impossible that a situation could play out more or less like this somewhere in the world, I simply had no tolerance for the way that the film had manipulated its audience throughout the entire first act, and then proceeded to bring Lucas’s world crashing down around him based upon this very questionable behavior by the school administrators. It was so apparent that they had done everything in exactly the wrong way that it felt cheap to me and my wife. So I turned it off.

So no, I wouldn’t recommend it. Not unless you enjoy manipulative films.

Riddick (2013)

Riddick (2013)

Riddick (2013)

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 

So I guess I’m going to have to be that guy who laments for the Chronicles of Riddick series that never was. Without going into extensive detail, I was a tremendous fan of the second (live action) Riddick film (i.e., The Chronicles of Riddick), because flaws notwithstanding (e.g., it tilted toward operatic), it was a tale built upon ideas. Perhaps, in a way, too many ideas, but I admired it on many levels for its storytelling and worldbuilding, and ultimately, for setting up a fascinating arc for its protagonist–I looked forward to watching it play out.

As a star vehicle for Vin Diesel, it fit like a glove, so understandably, it felt like a real labor of love for Diesel, as well as director/writer David Twohy. Almost as if they were so amazed that somebody had greenlighted a science fiction epic as a follow-up to the straightforward Pitch Black, they got kinda giddy about it, resulting in a film that included all but the kitchen sink. I can understand why some critics may have thought it all seemed overwrought, but from my perspective, I loved the filmmakers for what they tried to pull off, and I will forever wish The Chronicles of Riddick had been the hit it deserved to be.

But it wasn’t, so the series languished for a while, apparently dead, really, until somehow Vin Diesel, I believe, freed up the rights to the character, and square one became the direction.

So with regards to this more recent attempt to revive the character by returning to the sort of ground trod upon in the original Riddick film, Pitch Black, well…you can understand why I may have felt a bit underwhelmed. Where Chronicles was a film of ideas, Riddick didn’t seem to have many at all. That’s not a criticism, really, but obviously, it’s hardly a compliment, either.

Structurally, I did have some issues with Riddick, in that the film ambled along for far too long before letting the monsters loose. And then when it happened, it passed far too quickly, and without any particularly interesting set pieces. Most of the good stuff had preceded it, actually, and it might be said that the biggest flaw in Riddick was that the final 30 minutes weren’t nearly as entertaining as the first 30 minutes.

For a more extensive review, I would encourage anybody reading this to jump down to the second opinions section and visit Blessed Are the Geeks, because while I don’t subscribe to Donald’s enthusiasm for Riddick, he does a fine job of discussing it.

I mean…part of the problem with Riddick is that there sort of isn’t a whole lot to discuss. In an odd way, that may be its strength, but it also may be its weakness. There was potential in the set-up, but for an action horror film, it simply felt surprisingly light on both, to be honest, once the main plot kicked in.

Awake (2012)

awake_nbc1[1]

Rating: ★★★★★ 

Awake is the sort of series about which I could probably spend way more time talking than I really want to, so I will endeavor to confine this to essentials. Ultimately, my recommendation is going to be as follows: watch the pilot (currently available on Netflix’s streaming service) and decide for yourself. For my part, I won’t mince words here: Awake was a brilliant, I think.

First, brilliant for its high concept premise. There’s a bit of The Twilight Zone at the heart of a series like Awake, which poses to the viewer the scenario that a man could live full lives in two distinct worlds, both resulting from a traumatic precursor event in which in one world, his wife survived a car accident that took the life of his son, and in another, the son survived and his wife did not. The principle character goes to sleep in one world and, like clockwork, wakes up in the other, with both seeming thoroughly real to him.

That’s just a good, old-fashioned mindfuck, if you’ll pardon the expression. And Awake provides ample evidence to support whichever view you may adopt with regards to which is the reality and which is the dream. The way with which the writers toy with the viewer is very smart, trotting out clues that would seem to definitively lead to one conclusion or the other, only to later pull the rug out, placing doubt in our minds by suggesting that the previous clue might have merely been a trick of the protagonist’s subconscious intellect.

Look, I’m not going to pretend that this is flawless or without its problems. As the series draws on, it becomes increasingly improbable that any other explanation exists than that both worlds are real (or both dreams!). Additionally, somewhere in the middle, the writers lost the thread of the personal quest a bit before quickly catching it again, noticeably neglecting the psychological tension that results from attempting to reconcile two realities, and which rivets the viewer when the show is on top of its game. But minor gripes notwithstanding, Awake is, regardless, a lot of fun.

And while couching this brainy premise within the trappings of a police procedural may seem a little too on-the-nose (the main character is a detective, and the thrust of the series is, eventually, finding the truth), I found that the procedural elements actually worked pretty well, particularly when the writers remembered to draw the zig-zag line of logic between the two realities, while also weaving it through the protagonist’s personal story.

Second, brilliant for writing a main character that makes so much damn sense. For Michael Britten, his situation is both a blessing and a curse, and over the course of the 13 episodes of Awake, you’ll come to fully appreciate that. There’s a particularly amazing episode in the second half of the series in which Britten finds himself “stuck” in one of the realities, unable to cross back over to the other, and it totally unravels him. It’s powerful drama, and a perfect segue to the last point I intend to make.

Awake - Jason IsaacsThird, brilliant because of the performance of Jason Isaacs, who just plain inhabited this protagonist. Never less than completely believable and totally committed, and I think some of his best work over the course of Awake is to be found in the moments in which he is simply trying to hold onto what he can. For example, the look somehow behind his eyes when the tug of some thread of logic attempts to lead him away from one reality–which is clearly something that Britten can never allow to happen, as his sanity hinges upon remaining fully invested in both existences.

I don’t know…I was going to go into a tangent here about how I watched this series just after watching the pilot episode of The Following, and what a huge turd The Following was with its ridiculous characters and cliches at every turn, but I guess I won’t bother. Awake is a series strong enough to stand on its own without comparison to anything else on television. Because it wasn’t, really, like anything else on television. Certainly not prime time, network television. That’s not a value judgment–it’s just a fact. For better or for worse.

It is entirely unsurprising that it didn’t last, and even if one were to love it, one might still question where the premise really had to go over the course of a longer run, but as a blip on the pop culture radar, Awake was a noble attempt and well worth watching.

Margin Call (2011)

medium_Margin_Call[1]

Rating: ★★★½☆ 

Margin Call is a film that features an ensemble cast of talented actors digging in to a script seemingly developed with the intent to provide an ensemble cast of talented actors something to dig into. It isn’t quite the Glengarry Glen Ross of high finance films–it isn’t nearly as over-the-top, nor is it nearly as entertaining–though there’s the sense, perhaps, that the screenwriter, J.C. Chandor, probably watched Glengarry Glen Ross at some point in the planning stages. Make of that what you will.

As an indictment of the investment banking system that over-leveraged itself to the brink of, or even fully to, destruction, ushering the United States (and by extension, basically, the world) into the financial crisis of 2008, it’s pretty damning. Only…if you aren’t already up-to-speed on the finer details of precisely what the hell happened, don’t expect Margin Call to answer that question for you. Continue reading “Margin Call (2011)”

Batman: Arkham City (PC)

video-game-noir-batman-arkham-city-catwoman-via-digitaltrends[1]

Rating: ★★★★★ 

Batman: Arkham City has restored my faith in adventure game ports from the console to the PC. The game plays so intuitively and fluidly that I’m inclined to believe it’s actually quite a bit better suited to playing with a keyboard and mouse than it would be with a game controller. While Batman: Arkham City is a spectacularly entertaining game on its own merits, the sheer playability of the PC version puts it over the top for me.

Just a quick note, I played the Game of the Year Edition, which in addition to the base game, includes a Harley Quinn’s Revenge expansion, a Nightwing bonus pack for the challenge modes (non-campaign), and other sundries. If one were considering purchasing the game, I would suggest this is the version you would want (especially if you can pick it up for $7.50 on Steam, as I did).

I would love to do an in-depth review of this game, but with time always limited by life, I will endeavor to sum things up as briskly as possible.

Batman: Arkham City is a game that constantly reminds the player both why Batman is probably the best comic book character ever and why his rogues gallery is the best rogues gallery ever. The amount of mileage that writers have been able to get out of the Batverse over the years is astounding, possibly because Batman, himself, lends himself to so many different portrayals while still being distinctively Batman.

Batman: Arkham City - BaneThe writing is top-notch. To be sure, Batman: Arkham City does a somewhat strange narrative trick here by having us play out two mostly separate plotlines. These are interwoven, but neither is especially reliant upon the other structurally, except that, of course, you can’t complete one without completing the other. It’s a testament, I suppose, to the cleverness of the writers that it all feels connected, even if there’s no particular reason that they had to be.

A main cast of strong voice actors anchors the dark narrative, and it is worth noting that this is some of Kevin Conroy’s best work in the role of Batman. And that is a great compliment to the voice actor, because, of course, Kevin Conroy has been voicing Batman for so long that at this point, I think he may in real life actually be Batman. I’m pretty sure he is, anyway.

I would make the same  claim for Mark Hamill, once again performing the Joker. The writers provided a lot of meat for the character in Batman: Arkham City, and Hamill digs in in his customary fashion, while supplying his inimitable nuances that, for me, have always made Hamill’s a definitive portrayal.  I believe that Hamill may recently have officially retired from the part, but wow–for Hamill, especially, what a way to go out. The final confrontation between these two is a brilliant illustration of the crux of the ongoing conflict between Batman and the Joker, and one can clearly feel the deft pen of Paul Dini at the script level just knocking another one out of the park.

I also thought that Troy Baker was fantastic as Tim Drake/Robin, and was happy to have a chance to play with him more in the Harley Quinn expansion.

The gameplay is massively fun. Honestly, if this had merely been a beat-em-up, I would have almost been happy enough to play it (and in point of fact, I’ve done quite a bit of that in the challenge modes). But between the stalker encounters, platforming, and some basic puzzle solving, the overall gameplay package is very rich. It may not surprise you–particularly if you have played Batman: Arkham Asylum, but it is very solid, and as I averred at the outset, very intuitive to grasp.

The inclusion of the Catwoman sequences was a nice attempt to spice up the gameplay, though ultimately, this bit does feel a bit tacked on–nevertheless, however, nearly as fun as playing with Batman.

But nothing will ever trump playing as Batman, and ultimately, that is what this rave review resolves to: Batman: Arkham City allows the player to step into the shoes of the most bad-ass of all heroes, and so compellingly that it’s kind of a downer when it all comes to an end. The only thing for it at that point is to head to the Internet and blog about it, I suppose.